Following recent rollbacks on discrimination and whistleblowing (an employee who reports an employer’s misconduct) laws, a debated Missouri bill adding protections to university faculty from retaliation is now being pushed by a senator.
Titled the Academic Freedom and Whistleblower Protection Act, the bill prohibits an institution from having a policy allowing it to take adverse action against a faculty member in response to certain expression and disclosure of information.
The bill would allow professors to receive compensatory damages if a court finds the protected expression was a motivating factor behind the institution’s actions.
Missouri’s whistleblower laws only protect disclosure of information, regarding violations of federal or state laws and regulations, waste of funds and abuses of authority.
Newly proposed university-related protections in the bill would cover expression that raises concerns regarding university policies and campus mismanagement, as well as matters of social, political and economic interest.
The bill was written by Missouri Senator Ed Emery, a representative of Blue Springs and areas of Lee’s Summit.
The bill resembles another recent bill still pending in Senate, one that would strengthen protections for all public employees who disclosed information.
The bill was Missouri’s first attempt to restore whistleblower protections since Governor Greitens passed a bill last August excluding state employees, public college and university workers from protections for termination from speaking out against misconduct.
Emery’s bill specifically applies to faculty working in public Missouri universities; private universities would not be covered under the law.
The bill has garnered support and criticism from a variety of Missouri professors and law experts.
Northwest political science professor Daniel Smith said he hasn’t witnessed many issues with professors and free expression occurring at Northwest.
“I’m honestly not sure, we don’t have serious problems with this going on, so what’s the motivation here from (lawmakers)?” Smith said. “Our First Amendment rights, as well as basic whistleblowing laws, have worked to this point.”
Smith said he is skeptical of the bill’s intentions with few instances of this type of law being needed.
“Risks are probably more likely to come from them,” Smith said.
Emery’s argument is universities have been moving away from open exchanges of ideas, and wants a bill to be able to protect professors whose comments may not be agreed with by a majority.
Emery said incidents like the one at the University of Missouri in 2015 compelled him to write the legislation.
“The very essence of a bill like this is to say we’ve seen enough (incidents) of that to say that’s not permissible,” Emery said.
Furthermore, Emery has said he does want to see the state dictate the direction and expression permitted in a classroom.
Two St. Louis University professors, law professor Marcia McCormick and physics professor Greg Comer, have differing opinions on the bill.
McCormick said adopting the bill would help protect non-tenured professors who don’t have job security and could help reinforce deteriorating whistleblowing laws.
On the other hand, Comer said enacting this bill could lead to other consequences.
Namely, he told the Kansas City Star it could lessen a professor’s control on discussions, due to the bill’s vague language on what is considered reasonably relevant expression for course material.
“Faculty should have the primary say about what goes on in the classroom because we’re the experts on the material,” Comer said.
Initially filed in January, the bill was heard by the Senate Committee Government Reform in February.